A bona fide celebrity of the type world, the divisive Helvetica typeface has been set on world domination since the 1950s.
Possibly the most widely used typeface worldwide, the Helvetica font has been liberally splashed across logos, signage, posters, and clothing, with its neutral, impassive style inciting both fervent fandom and outright hatred.
Brush up on your Helvetica history, and discover why the Helvetica font family continues to dominate urban areas and how its popularity inspired Helvetica shirts and even a Helvetica documentary.
What Is Helvetica?
Helvetica is a ‘Grotesque’ sans serif typeface. It was created in the 1950s to meet the demand for sans serif typefaces in the tradition of the International Style of graphic design.
Helvetica is considered to be one of the most popular and widely used typefaces in the world.
Helvetica: Quick Facts
- Helvetica isn’t original—it’s based on an 1896 typeface called Akzidenz-Grotesk (known as Standard in the US), which was popular in Switzerland in the early 20th century.
- The ‘Helvetica’ name was given to the typeface in 1960 to make it easier to sell abroad (it was originally named Neue Haas Grotesk). ‘Helvetica’ means ‘Swiss’ in Latin, in homage to its country of origin.
- Helvetica is meant to be boring—its designers were striving for a neutral and versatile design that lacked personality.
Who Created Helvetica?
In the mid-1950s, Eduard Hoffmann, the President of the Haas type foundry in Switzerland, was worried. Sales of their sans serif ‘grotesk’ typefaces were falling, and it was clear that the foundry’s classic designs were struggling to compete with their competitors’ offerings, such as the Berthold type foundry’s Akzidenz-Grotesk typeface.
Hoffmann spotted an opportunity to create a typeface in the tradition of the emerging International Style of design. He commissioned former Haas salesman and designer, Max Miedinger, to design a new Grotesk typeface.
Hoffmann began work on the typeface in late 1956. His design emphasized horizontal stroke terminals, a tall x-height, and tight tracking, giving the typeface a dense and sturdy appearance.
Hoffmann’s typeface, named Neue Haas Grotesk (‘neue’ for new, and ‘Haas’ as the name of the foundry) was debuted at the Graphic 57 trade show in June 1957. It was an immediate success with the Swiss designers visiting the show.
To ensure Neue Haas Grotesk was able to compete successfully in a global market, Hoffmann wanted to make the typeface available for machine composition. In 1959, he made a deal with the German typographic foundry D. Stempel AG to manufacture Neue Haas Grotesk for linotype machines, making the typeface more accessible to a broader customer base.
The typeface was renamed Helvetica in 1960, to create a catchier name for selling the typeface overseas.
With Swiss design and the International Style emerging as the most popular design styles of the early 1960s, advertising agencies were eager to adopt these newly popular styles for their clients. Helvetica quickly became the typeface of choice for logos, poster ads, billboards, and signage.
Why Do I See Helvetica Everywhere?
A better question might be: "Why do I see Helvetica everywhere... but don’t notice it?"
Helvetica is infamously omnipresent, especially in urban areas, to such an extent that it inspired an award-winning 2007 documentary on the subject.
The main reason it feels like Helvetica is everywhere is that it was adopted by a number of transport systems, including the New York Subway. The typeface’s neutrality is what makes it go unnoticed most of the time, despite being liberally splashed across what feels like every sign, sticker and poster in many Western cities.
The neutrality (or banality as many designers would prefer to coin it) of Helvetica is actually what made the typeface so popular for so many projects.
The designer who chose Helvetica for the New York Subway, Massimo Vignelli, remarked in Gary Hustwist’s Helvetica documentary: “There are people that think that type should be expressive. They have a different point of view from mine.”
Vignelli deliberately selected the typeface for its functional invisibility when he rejected Standard and replaced it with Helvetica for the 1989 redesign of the subway system’s signage.
“It provided something that designers wanted: a typeface apparently devoid of personality. In contrast, other popular sans serif typefaces that existed at the time, such as Gill Sans and Futura, have stronger voices and more distinctive geometries. Helvetica met our craving for corporate vanilla.”
— Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.
Helvetica is also one of the most widely used typefaces in corporate logo design. To name just a few—BMW, Crate&Barrel, Fendi, Jeep, Kawasaki, Knoll, Lufthansa, Mattel, Nestlé, Panasonic, Scotch, Skype, Target, Texaco, Tupperware, and Verizon.
Many of these logos were created in an era before custom fonts were widely used in brand design, and they have continued to endure with very little adjustment since their inception.
In 1984, Steve Jobs selected Helvetica to be the headline font for his new Macintosh computers, solidifying Helvetica’s role as the default sans serif for generations of Mac users.
Helvetica continues to dominate the world today. It was the system font of choice for the first iPhone, remaining part of iOS until 2015 (when it was replaced by Apple’s own font, San Francisco).
Microsoft’s imitation of Helvetica, Arial, is used widely across signage and advertising, continuing in part the legacy of Helvetica for Windows users.
I Don’t Like Helvetica Anymore. What Are the Alternatives?
“It is an invasive and drug-resistant species that may never be eradicated. Even designers who don’t often use Helvetica in their own work take pride in the fact that it is such a persistent cultural icon.”
— American designer and design historian Paul Shaw
It’s understandable if you don’t like Helvetica. For many designers, it is frustrating that this dull and characterless typeface has enjoyed as much success as it has and overtaken other neo-grotesque sans serifs in the process, such as Univers and Folio.
Some critics have pointed out that Helvetica may be falling from favor, with more brands opting for custom fonts to give themselves an edge in an increasingly crowded market.
If you’re simply sick to death of Helvetica, a related alternative might not be the best solution anyway (why not try a geometric sans serif or trusty serif for size instead?), but if you’re simply fed up of Helvetica through over-exposure, one of these alternatives might be a realistic remedy.
For the still-sort-of-OK-with-Helvetica among you, a contemporary revision of Helvetica can seem like a breath of fresh air.
Neue Helvetica (or Helvetica Neue) is a 1983 revision of the original Helvetica typeface by a collective of four designers—Wolfgang Schimpf, his assistant Reinhard Haus, René Kerfante, and design consultant Erik Spiekermann. Developed at D. Stempel AG, Neue has a more unified set of heights and widths. Other changes include improved legibility, heavier punctuation marks, and increased spacing in the numbers.
Monotype Studio have since created a more contemporary update of Helvetica. Helvetica Now is described as a ‘restoration’ of the original Helvetica, with a variety of useful alternate letterforms and characters added and available in three optical sizes—Micro, Text, and Display.
There are also a wide range of fonts available which mimic, lift elements from, or pay tribute to Helvetica, some of which have gone on to become well-loved fonts in their own right. We’ve already mentioned Microsoft’s take on Helvetica, Arial, which is as well known as it is often derided.
Below, find a few Helvetica alternatives that achieve what Arial was unable to do—a cutting-edge, contemporary take on a grotesque sans serif style:
1. Noirden Sans
Noirden Sans is one of the closest contemporary matches to the original Helvetica. Retaining the International Style mood of the original, Noirden Sans is slightly more rounded, giving it a more contemporary feel.
So if you're on the hunt for a Helvetica alternative that is barely distinguishable from the original at first glance, Noirden Sans is a great pick.
Created by Unique Foundry, SOLO is a fresh and breezy take on the Helvetica style. The typeface is easy to read, with a little quirk added through soft stylistic curves added to some of the letterforms, such as the lowercase ‘a’.
Download the desktop and web fonts, including versions OTF, TTF, EOT, SVG and WOFF, from Envato Elements.
Described as an ‘authentic sans serif’ by its designers, foundry Fontastica, Exensa Grotesk is inspired by the International Style of type design.
With an almost compressed look to the lettering, Exensa is chunky and highly legible, making it a good all-round choice for both headlines and body text.
Noveltica Nova Pro is an elegant tribute to Swiss typography in the tradition of Helvetica and Verdana. The uniformity of the height and width of the letterforms gives the typeface a neutrality, making it a versatile typeface choice.
Pair the Light and Bold weights together to create high-impact headlines with an authentic Helvetica style.
Conclusion: Why Helvetica?
The Helvetica typeface is one of the world's best-loved fonts, whether you like it or not! The neutrality and impersonal nature of Helvetica might make it a divisive typeface amongst designers, but it's these qualities which have allowed it to become an integral and ever-present part of our towns and cities.
Why should you continue to use Helvetica?
Helvetica is an icon of type design, and its 60 years of consistent service means that it's well and truly been tried and tested. So if you're looking for a font that does the job—nothing more and nothing less—there's probably no better candidate than Helvetica.
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